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In Global Warming Debate, Insurers Play it Cool

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Both sides embroiled in the political debate over climate change will find proof for their positions in data collected by the insurance industry. But don't expect the industry itself to weigh in. 

In a phone interview, Dr. Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, emphasized that the insurance industry as a whole is satisfied to let the scientific community estimate the realities of climate change and the possible influence of man-made greenhouse gasses. While insurers have an obvious stake in science's findings, agreeing or disagreeing with any particular theory isn't the job of an insurer.

"From an insurance perspective, irrespective of the debate, we place our chips on the actual hard data that we see from actual claim activity all around the world," Hartwig said, emphasizing the projection of trends in the frequency of insurance claims and the cost of those claims. "The cause of that trend is less important than the trend itself."

The longevity of insurance companies depends not on speculation about causes but on accurately predicting those trends.

"The fact that the climate is variable and volatile is nothing new," he said, noting that some insurance companies have been around for 200 years. While part of health insurer Cigna dates back to the 18th century, among the oldest in the property and casualty sector are Athens, Ga.,-based Southern Mutual,  founded 1847, and Maryland-based Hartford Mutual, dating back to 1842.

"Every insurer in business today has long since learned how to adapt to oftentimes extreme variability in the climate," Hartwig said.

In the historical analysis, changing demographics play a key role. One of the reasons hurricanes, wildfires and tornados are more devastating in recent decades is more people live in the areas where they occur.

"There was a very severe hurricane in 1926 in Miami -- not very many people lived there, but what would happen if that were to happen today?" Hartwig said. "All of those analyses are done to project expected costs."

It is partly the demographic variable that makes data from the insurance industry as a whole such a dubious source for those that would argue a political position on climate change. Tracking the cost of damages from natural disasters in any region over a century would appear to bolster the case for climate change: A greater number of people on the planet leads to greater damages and higher costs from storms. Meanwhile, data measuring the frequency and severity of such disasters may or may not not support the same conclusion.

But demographics aren't the whole story. Hartwig had no qualms about stating that violent weather activity has increased in recent years.

"There are certainly more [severe weather] events in the U.S. and maybe even globally," he said, adding that the rise in thunderstorm-related damage -- caused by what are termed "convective events" -- has been particularly dramatic.

"The largest insured loss in the world was a convective event last year, a hail storm in Germany," he said.